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Garmin Instinct Solar Review - Bryn Dickerson

Garmin Instinct Solar Review - Bryn Dickerson

Posted by Bryn Dickerson on 21st Jun 2021

Intro:
G’day and welcome to my review of the Garmin Instinct Solar! My name is Bryn Dickerson, I am a professional Downhill Mountain Bike racer competing around the globe on the World Cup circuit since 2012. As well as this I’m a professional coach with my business Fluid Lines and keep myself busy with a bunch of other activities such as product design, creating promotional content and bike testing.

I was super excited to get my hands on the Instinct Solar. I’ve been looking at these devices for a long time, and the solar charging aspect was one of the big factors that sold me on the watch. Has it lived up to expectations?? Let's dig in to find out more.

Design: Light, tactical and Rugged.

I spend most of my days outside teaching, testing and training. As such, having a watch that can take the knocks and scrapes, yet be minimal enough to stay out of the way is a really important consideration for me. The Instinct Solar ticks all of these boxes, and while it is bigger than my old watch the 45mm x 45mm x 15.3mm dimensions feel really comfy on my left wrist. While this gives quite a slim profile, if you had slight wrists you might notice it catching on the occasional sleeve or bag strap but so far I’ve not had any issues with it.

Keeping the materials simple in the construction is a bonus for me, the plastic is good quality and feels like it is built to last. No need for fancy metals or anything like that, it’s solid, tough and importantly light. Everything I could ask for.

Finally, the 22mm strap is easily interchangeable with all other  Garmin Quickfit 22 bands, giving you plenty of colour options should you want to customise your look.

Display: Monochrome, but sharp and visible in all conditions.

While the black and white display might be a bit simple for some peoples tastes, I have grown to really like and appreciate it in the short time I have had the watch. It looks crisp, with the black and white contrast making the face easy to read and analyse, even the smaller numbers.

This crispness coupled with a good backlight means that the watch face is also super easy to read in all lighting conditions. To be honest you barely even need the backlight on at all, I have mine set at 5% brightness, and have it off unless I press a button. Even set like this I have absolutely no issues reading the face be it pitch dark or bright sun.

User Interface: 5 buttons is a lot, but it’s like riding a bike.

For those of you who are familiar with smart watches and in particular Garmin products you’ll take to it like a duck to water. But I must admit, there was some confusion when I first started using the Instinct Solar.

Coming from a watch where you really only ever use one or two of the buttons, having access to FIVE that you use frequently was a bit overwhelming to start with. Especially given that hitting different buttons often seemed to bring me to the same point.

Now, the caveat to this was that I received the watch when I was recently down on holiday in Queenstown. So as you can imagine it was hard to sit down and figure it all out when there were so many activities to be done (even for someone who loves techy stuff)! However, now that I’ve had a bit of time to sit down and understand how the menus and settings link together it is actually super intuitive.

I love the customisation that the watch affords, from the favourite activities and the activity data displays, through to the actual watch face itself and individual widgets, you can make this watch tell you EXACTLY what you want to know, and have it all wrapped up in a convenient UI.

One important bit of info to note is that the Instinct Solar is NOT compatible with the Garmin Connect IQ app. But I have not found this to be an issue at all as yet. There is plenty of customisation available in the watch itself.

Battery/ Solar: Amazing, would outlive the dinosaurs.

While there might be a little bit of hyperbole in the above statement the sentiment is bang on. This watch has insane battery life. With some reasonable setting configurations (phone connect still on, full GPS mode, a watch face that refreshes every second etc) I am getting an indicated 29 days per charge! And to think that is BEFORE you add in any of the solar capability. It really blew my mind when I unplugged it for the first time.

More impressive than the indication however is that the watch actually runs true to this number. Without changing my settings, it duly loses one day of indicated charge per day used. I find this impressive as I have used SO many devices in the past that have indicated a certain amount of battery life only to fall far short of the figure. It is refreshing to see an accurate representation.

The crowing jewel in the Instinct Solar however is the photovoltaic panel and surrounds underneath that harness the power of the sun to charge the watch whenever it is exposed to sunshine.

Surely this is a gimmick you ask?

Me too, so I tested this the other day while I was out coaching. I took the watch off and left it in the sun for approx. 1 hour while I was working with a client. I didn’t change any power settings or adjust anything. In the hour I had the watch sitting on the ground (and bearing in mind this is mid winter, with a low sun) I still GAINED 3 days of battery life. Again, an hour in the sun in normal mode, GAINED battery life. Impressive!

Even when using the GPS, this incredible battery life continues. With a claimed 70 hours of Max GPS usage per charge before you add on another 75 hours with the Solar function. Garmin also claim 38 hours of GPS with your wrist based heart rate refreshing every second.

In my time with the watch I have recorded a multitude of activities, mountain biking, hiking, running, swimming and gym workouts. Again, the watch appears to run true to these figures, making it all the more useful!

GPS and overall sensor Accuracy: Could watch you sleep, and probably a lot more!

As I mentioned above, I’ve recorded a bunch of different activities with the Instinct Solar. As a bit of a data lover, I really enjoy dipping in and out of the figures and seeing how accurate they really are. I’ll just go into a couple of my most used sensors here otherwise this review will be 20 pages long!

So far, the GPS has performed exceptionally well, more than accurate enough for daily usage whether I am training or just out for fun ride. The tracking so far has been spot on, even in pretty dense tree cover. I would have no issues recommending the watch based on this alone. When GPS is running, the watch face shows useful data that is also very customisable to show almost anything you like on the watch face. I have mine set to the default screen which has ride time, distance, elevation gain, current heart rate and current elevation. Again, this can easily be customised, and I will play with it in future, but this set up ticks all my boxes.

For the heart rate, the Instinct Solar has an upgraded sensor over the previous Instinct model. In my experience so far it seems to be reasonably accurate, though it takes a bit of time to catch up when I start an activity/take off from a rest. This is partly due to the wrist mounted position which can also move around when you are riding, and can also be affected by how tight you have the strap and how much the watch moves around on the wrist throughout the activities. Overall though it is still plenty useful and I find it really interesting to follow my peaks and troughs. I also find it particularly useful for zone training, and it matches up nicely with how my body is feeling at the time.

The altimeter is another metric that I like to keep an eye on. Be it curiosity or maybe an unconscious desire to climb Mt Everest, I really enjoy knowing my elevation. So far this has proved a bit inconsistent. It has the potential to be very accurate, and I think it shows changes in elevation well. Though sometimes it seems to get a little bit confused, what I mean by this is my house is about 7- 10m above sea level. Most of the time the watch reads this perfectly, however when I look at it now it reads 51m. So either there has been a massive earthquake that I don’t know about or it’s slightly off.

Again, I think for everyday use it is a great tool and one that I certainly enjoy making the most of. But it is worth calibrating it reasonably regularly to ensure the most accurate results.

Alternatives:

In terms of alternatives to the Instinct Solar, I see a lot of people comparing it to the Fenix 6 Pro or the standard Instinct. In my mind, this one is the best value of the 3. The Instinct Solar has a massive amount of features and to be honest, there is nothing that the Fenix 6 can do that I really miss on the Solar to justify the extra price.

Against the standard Instinct, the improved sensors and insane battery life are a compelling case. Here in New Zealand there is a pretty big price jump between the two models but if you are looking for a watch that you don’t have to think about battery life, or whether it will see you through the day/activity/expedition etc then the Instinct Solar has to take the cake.

Summary: If you are thinking about it, do it!

I feel the tone of this review should give you a pretty good insight into my views on the watch, I really enjoy using it. I really like the design aesthetics and functionality. While the UI was a bit to get my head around, this is mainly because I really like to understand everything I can about a product and I wanted to make sure I was getting the most out of the watch. The buttons are a pleasure to use and the screen is also easy to read and shows a good amount of information.

The battery is incredible, I really didn’t want a watch I had to be battery watching, and this fits that perfectly. In fact I’ve only charged it twice in the month I’ve had it and I have recorded over 30 hours of GPS tracking.

The sensors on a whole provide accurate and useful information, particularly the GPS. If you were looking for a device to be very accurate with your heart rate, then you would be better to look at a chest strap. But again, I have found the Instinct Solar is very useful for zone training.

In short, if you are considering the Instinct Solar, my advice is to grab it, it’s a fantastic bit of kit!

Bryn Dickerson